BALTIMORE (AP) — As the nation reels from repeated incidents of violence between police and African Americans, the head of the National Urban League said Tuesday that his group deliberately chose to hold its annual conference this week in the city where a young black man's death in police custody last year touched off protests and rioting.
"Because we're dedicated to solving urban problems, when there are problems, we should run to the front lines," league president and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial said. "The decision to come to Baltimore is a decision to come to the front lines, and create opportunities to not only shed a spotlight on the problems, but to do what the Urban League is really known for, and that's focus on solutions, policy prescriptions and programmatic initiatives."
During the "Save Our Cities" summit Wednesday through Friday, Morial said the conference would address a range of issues such as poverty, housing, education and strategies to combat perhaps the most pernicious and pervasive problem in American cities today: joblessness. Morial attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday for an entrepreneurship center dedicated to bolstering small businesses.
Urban League officials say Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine will address the conference on Thursday.
The National Urban League is among the leading national advocacy organizations for African Americans.
Its annual conference comes at a pivotal time. Amid a hotly contested presidential race and a rash of shootings by police and shootings of officers, race relations are dominating the national conversation. Morial said the organization's decision to hold the conference in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray was no accident. Gray died in April 2015, a week after he suffered a spinal injury in a Baltimore Police Department van. His arrest and death touched off days of protest and the worst rioting the city had seen in decades.
Police reforms, Morial said, will also be at the top of the list at this year's conference, adding that departments should shift from aggressively arresting residents for misdemeanor crimes toward spending time and money training officers to be community oriented.
The conference will feature a job fair and a backpack giveaway for school-age children. Increasing educational opportunities for children is paramount, Morial said.
"We don't want to get caught because the complexity of a problem seems so daunting that people throw up their hands, that the systematic challenges are so great that we can't confront these challenges," he said. "You always ask, 'Where are the important places to start and focus?' One of the important places to focus is with children and youth. We'd like to see every child have an opportunity for early childhood education, and for the disparities in funding of schools disappear."